When Chantal Akerman died last fall I wrote that her films are less esoteric and forbidding than their reputations would suggest. Akerman’s engagement with “big” ideas—migration, feminism, capitalism—is often rooted in familiar domestic environments. With No Home Movie, her final film (it was completed shortly before her death), Akerman has made one of her most accessible and personal works. No Home Movie functions as a documentary portrait of Akerman’s elderly mother Natalia, a Polish Jew who settled in Belgium in the 1940s and who, at the time of filming, lived alone in a modestly furnished Brussels apartment. It also speaks to the broader themes and motifs of Akerman’s body of work as a whole, acting as a kind of summation of her entire career.
Death hangs over the film, over the course of which Natalia’s health slowly declines. In a move that is typical of her oblique approach to narrative, Akerman marks her mother’s passing as a structuring absence: we know Natalia has died because in the film’s final shots she appears to have vanished from the apartment. No Home Movie is also inevitably colored by the knowledge of Akerman’s suicide, which would follow her mother’s death by two years and may have been incited by depression and grief over her loss. The familiar domestic routines and rituals seen here as well as throughout Akerman’s filmography—shots of women eating and cooking, sitting at tables, watching television—take on a poignant resonance within this context. Akerman, who made a career out of observing women’s lives, observes more pointedly than ever how those lives may be reducible to a succession of humble, repetitive moments. Within such a context, death may be little more than the ceasing of that routine.